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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Statement of Plans

Another part of the Guggenheim application. I fear it is not clear to non-specialist audience. But getting this fellowship application done will be the first major accomplishment for my sabbatical.
My plan for the Guggenheim fellowship is to complete work on a book in progress with the title What Lorca Knew: Spanish Poetics and Intellectual History. The aim of this new book is to trace the intellectual genealogy the “late modern” school of Spanish poetry studied in my previous book, The Twilight of the Avant-Garde, to explain the intriguing success of this movement, and to reflect on its internal contradictions. The two major poets most closely identified with this tendency are José Ángel Valente and Antonio Gamoneda; other figures associated with late modernism include Miguel Casado, Olvido García Valdés, Andrés Sánchez Robayna, José-Miguel Ullán, and the Spanish-American poets Blanca Varela and Eduardo Milán, among several others. Late modernism is, in my estimation, the most significant poetic tendency of the present moment. Not all contemporary Spanish poets belong to this movement, of course: a rival school, identified with an explicit rejection of modernist principles, has been equally prominent since the 1980s. My aim in this book, however, is not to examine the dynamics of this rivalry (as I did in The Twlight of the Avant-Garde), but to examine late modernism in its intellectual and literary context.

The origins of late modernism can be found in the cultural poetics of Spanish exceptionalism, first developed in the work of key precursors like Miguel de Unamuno, Federico García Lorca, and María Zambrano. Zambrano is a transitional figure in this lineage, providing a bridge between the historical modernism of the pre-civil war period and the late modernism that developed beginning in the 1980s. The central question for Spanish late modernism is the one posed most eloquently in Zambrano’s work: the possibility of fusion between poetry and thought, between the forms of knowledge embodied in the metaphors and rhythms of poetic language and the more abstract forms of reason developed by the philosophers.

Aside from Zambrano, the most significant precursor of the poetics of modernism is Federico García Lorca, who is also one of the most canonical figure of historical modernism itself. The title What Lorca Knew reflects my estimation of his centrality. Lorca’s contribution to modernist and late modernist tradition, however, has remained in doubt. Valente—the major intellectual figure of Spanish late modernism—has been reticent about acknowledging the extent of his debt to Lorca, preferring to trace his own lineage to Jiménez, Lezama Lima, Paul Celan, and Edmond Jabès, among others. As a consequence, the author of Poet in New York is not included in the semi-official canon of Spanish late modernism. Lorca remains a significant and even controversial figure in contemporary Spain, to be sure, but for reasons that are largely tangential to his poetic legacy: he is the most prominent victim of the Spanish civil war, losing his life in a political assassination at the outset of the conflict in 1936. The focus of this book is not on poetry per se, but on poetics. My primary aim, in other words, is not to analyze or interpret lyric poems, but rather to look at the broader intellectual foundations of the late modern movement. The word poetics can mean several different things, but for my project the elasticity of the concept is advantageous. In structuralist theory, poetics can refer to a systematic approach to literature aimed at uncovering implicit structures or rules, but it is also associated with more intuitive modes of thought. Poetics is both the theory implicit in the writing poetry itself, and a genre of prose written by poets in an attempt to explain or justify their practice.

Since one of the central projects of late modernism is to fuse poetry with more abstract forms of thought, this body of writing becomes particularly significant, acquiring an autonomous value quite apart from its usefulness in explicating the work of the poet in question. A text like Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende” might hold keys for interpreting Lorca’s poetry, but it is also a major work of literature in its own right. The same might be said of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book or the densely baroque essays of José Lezama Lima. The philosophical essay, as practiced in Spain by Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, and María Zambrano, also has close connections with the practice of poetics: the aim of these philosphers is to explore modes of thought that are intuitive and poetic rather than strictly rationalistic, and to forge a cultural poetics of Spanish identity.

The following is a table of contents of this book:

1. Introduction: Spanish Exceptionalism, Poetics, and Intellectual History

2. Declining Fortunes: Jorge Guillén and Luis Cernuda

3. The Grain of the Voice: “Play and Theory of the Duende”

4. Postmodern Lorca: Motherwell, Strayhorn, García Montero

5. María Zambrano and the Genealogy of Late Modernism

6. José Ángel Valente: The New Synthesis

7. Antonio Gamoneda and the Persistence of Memory

8. What Claudio Knew: From Pragmaticism to Mysticism

9. Strange Islands: The Spanish American Connection

10. Verse and Prose (From Juan Ramón Jiménez to Olvido García Valdés)

At this time, I have completed drafts of seven chapters. I propose to write Chapters 4 during my Sabbatical leave (Fall of 2012) and remaining sections of the book (Chapters 1, 6, and 10) during the academic year 2013-14. This plan allows for time to revise the entire manuscript for style and submit it to a publisher by June of 2014.

This book will make a substantial contribution to the study of modern Spanish poetry and poetics, showing how Lorca’s legacy relates to the development of the late modernist poetics developed by Zambrano and Valente and echoed by Spanish American poets like Blanca Varela and Eduardo Milán. In chapter 2, I argue that the legacy of Jorge Guillén and Luis Cernuda, two canonical poets, is not quite as significant as it once seemed. The two chapters on Lorca (3, 4) perhaps hold the key to the book. In chapter 3, I undertake a major re-interpretation of a foundational text in Spanish poetics. In chapter 4, I further reflect on Lorca’s on-going legacy, discussing three emblematic cases: “Elegy for the Spanish Republic,” a series of paintings by the Abstract Impressionist Robert Motherwell; jazz composer Billy Strayhorn’s musical settings of Lorca’s texts; and Spanish poet Luis García Montero’s struggle to reconcile his admiration for Lorca’s politics with his suspicion of Lorca’s avant-garde poetics.

The following chapters of What Lorca Knew are devoted to three poets of the latter half of the twentieth century: José Ángel Valente, Claudio Rodríguez, and Antonio Gamoneda. My contention is that these three poets owe a great deal more to Lorca’s legacy than they have acknowledged. Lorca’s work thus holds the key to the development of late modernist poetics. Chapter 9 examines the support lent to Valente and his school by Spanish American late modernists, while Chapter 10 highlights the importance of poetic works that call into question the distinction between verse and prose. This final chapter will allow me to revisit the work of poets discussed in other chapters (Gamoneda, Rodríguez) in a different context, showing how the distinctive prosody of late modernism creates new forms of artistic expression.

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